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Breaking Halo for 10 years, and more from Speedrun

Why do we try so hard to ‘break’ our favorite games?

Graphic illustration featuring screen images from four different video games and portraits of Jimmy Mondal and Mari Takahashi Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

“The way I see it, it’s sort of like performing an operation on a game. So literally, you’re sort of dissecting it, opening the game up and seeing the inner workings. You get to watch the gears of the game rotate. And then, in a way, you can make the game your own.”

We speak to many insightful people on Speedrun, but that particular musing, spoken by Ponyo of the group Termacious Trickocity, got to the essence of this week’s theme better than I could have hoped for: why do we break games? To make them our own.

Ponyo and his crew have spent the better part of a decade dissecting the Halo series, sifting through numerous cutting room floors to find any scraps the developers left behind. They’ve boarded faraway ships, entered rooms only meant for cutscenes, and most recently, completed Halo 3: ODST without killing a single alien. If Halo can, in fact, belong to anyone outside of 343 and Bungie — the studios that created and shaped it — Termacious Trickocity has a convincing claim.

Then we have Establishment of Appalachian Taste Testers — or EATT — the group of role-players that made Fallout 76’s Cannibalism perk its calling card. This report by Patricia Hernandez piqued my interest last year, and I’ve been fascinated with EATT ever since: they “broke” Bethesda’s RPG by building their entire identity around a useful if commonplace feature. Naturally, we sent our correspondent Mari Takahashi in to embed with them. The results were not disappointing.

Today’s episode was an exclamation point on an already eclectic week. We interviewed speedrunner Kosmic about his knowledge of Super Mario Bros., and how it culminated in his new world record earlier this year. By taking advantage of the flaw, he completed the classic NES game in 4 minutes, 55 seconds, and 646 milliseconds. The previous record was only 100 milliseconds longer.

So, if this week was any indication, there are various ways to break games. We can shed light on their hidden corners. We can amplify their unremarkable features. We can trick their very programming into revealing pixelated wormholes that warp us into forgotten dimensions.

But while the methods vary, the reason remains the same: we break games so that we can make them our own — flaws and all.